B. Beliefs about moral standards

The society values truthfulness

Most business transactions depend on trust. A businessperson has to trust that a supplier will deliver a product on the date that he specified, and that the product will have the agreed quality and specifications. The supplier has to trust that the buyer will pay for the product when he promised to do so. When buyers and sellers are in the habit of telling the truth and keeping their word, business transactions run smoothly and the economy functions efficiently. When a business is building a highly complex product (such as an airplane or automobile), there can be hundreds or even thousands of suppliers and workers on which the company depends in order to make a quality product in a timely manner.

But if a culture tolerates lying and breaking one’s word, then the entire economic system begins to break down. Products are not delivered on time. Needed parts come in the wrong sizes or do not meet quality standards. Invoices and accounting reports are falsified so that companies no longer have an accurate picture of their inventories or costs of goods. Additional time-wasting procedures have to be built in to check and doublecheck the accuracy of every report. Economic productivity begins a rapid, downward spiral. Therefore, it is not surprising that William Easterly reports that cultures with high levels of trust have higher per capita incomes, and cultures with lower levels of trust have significantly lower per capita incomes.37 (We mentioned in chapter 6 that a free-market system tends to foster a climate of truthfulness more than economic systems that are not as free; see 191-93.)

The Bible opposes such a breakdown in culture by upholding a high standard of truthfulness in speech. It says, “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor” (Ex. 20:16), and, “Do not lie to one another” (Col. 3:9). A society that honors these commands will value and expect truthfulness.

On the other hand, if a society abandons these standards, it will be increasingly filled with lying, deceit, and slander. Little shame will be attached to lying and getting away with it. In some cultures, those who can lie successfully and cheat others are honored rather than despised. Such cultural values cause disrespect for truth in a society, and become a significant hindrance to economic development.

David Maranz points out many ways in which the requirements of truthfulness and honesty in speech are commonly disregarded in many African societies:

Africans find security in ambiguous arrangements, plans, and speech____

The following are areas where ambiguity is often seen . . . allowing for the renegotiation of agreements in the light of changed facts, or a hoped for basis for claiming a better agreement. . . . Not keeping accurate or precise financial records. . . . Arriving or starting times for meetings or gatherings being indefinitely later than the announced times.[1]

Maranz also says that if people are paid before a job is completed, they often fail to complete the job, which Westerners see as failing to keep one’s word:

A contract or a bill paid in full before the service is completed is money lost, with few exceptions. A Westerner engaged a man to trim some trees in his yard. After they had settled on a price, the tree trimmer was paid in full. The Westerner never saw the man again. A similar experience happened with a tiling contractor.[2]

Maranz gives another example:

You make an agreement with a painter on painting your house. He will paint the house for a set amount with the cost of the paint and other materials being separate. He begins to paint, with an advance on the contract price, but then stops. Days go by and he does not show up. . . . You query him why the job is not finished. He then informs you there was a mistake. The price you gave him was too low and he cannot continue unless you increase the amount you will pay.[3]

In describing an ideal economically productive society, Landes explains what it means to value honesty: “This ideal society would also be honest. Such honesty would be enforced by law, but ideally, the law would not be needed. People would believe that honesty is right (also that it pays) and would live and act accordingly.”[4]

  • [1] David Maranz, African Friends and Money Matters (Dallas: SIL International, 2001), 88.
  • [2] Ibid., 177.
  • [3] Ibid., 185.
  • [4] Landes, Wealth and Poverty, 218.
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